Robin Campbell, The Pfister Hotel’s house carpenter for eight years, retired two years ago. But he came back for Gallery Night last Friday to see the work of his friend Stephanie Barenz, the Hotel’s fifth Artist-in-Residence (AiR), as well as the work of the other AiRs past and present. When she arrived, she described him in avuncular terms as they greeted each other warmly. “I designed the huge frame for her painting in the hallway,” Robin beamed.
I had originally attended the opening of “Bridges: Artistic Passages“–an exhibition of current works by all eight AiRs, including the exhibit curator, Pamela Anderson–with the intention of writing about bridges and passages, with interviews of the AiRs and guests. It was, perhaps, too early in the evening to capture a good story: downtown was spilling out onto the streets and into cars and buses, homeward bound. Perhaps some of them would make their way back downtown for some art appreciation. Many of the artists were also participating in Gallery Night at other studios. (I plan to go back and capture my impressions of the exhibit in a future blog; you should visit, too!)
In the meantime, however, I caught the eye of someone across the room, who looked at me almost knowingly, inviting me to his table like he had something important to tell me.
I had not known that the Hotel had a “house carpenter” (I wondered where the workshop might be). “In my shop at home,” Robin informed me. He then proceeded to flip through his phone’s gallery, like an eager teenager, to show me tables he had masterfully refinished, cabinets and shelving he had designed and built, and an impressive moveable wall in an upstairs ballroom. He regaled me with a story about how all the doors in the ballrooms had needed tweaking one year (“None of them would close, they were all crooked”) and how he saved the Hotel a lot of money by correcting all eighteen or so doors–in only a day and a half! As his finger swept through the photographs, it dawned on me that the beautiful glass case on the grand staircase landing was probably–“Yes, I made that, too.” (I was embarrassed that I had walked by the case so many times without realizing that the dazzling blue dress encased within it was crafted by Timothy Westbrook, the fourth AiR. I thought it was, well, what did I think? A ball gown from 1893?)
He also designed the case for Niki Johnson‘s Tether, the deep red tub lined with feathers and fur that sits across from the art studio.
There’s also a massive butcher block table that looks like puzzle pieces that Chef Brian Frakes pulls out for special presentations, and Paint Department Supervisor Mary Rose told me later that he also built all the podiums in the hotel and the long tables in the basement’s Salve Staff Canteen.
It was clear that Robin took exceptional pride in his work, as well he should. He turned that pride to humility for a moment, though, when he told me how Stephanie had honored him in one of her paintings during her residency. The woodwork was interesting, but now I wanted to follow him down this path.
Stephanie had joined forces with Narrator Molly Snyder to collaborate on a book of paintings and writings inspired by their time at The Pfister. Called The Carriers, this collection is both rooted in Milwaukee and transient with departures and travels and arrivals. In one of the rooted painting-story pairings, “Robin & the Fisherfolk,” a small fishing boat in the foreground is overwhelmed by a turbulent magenta-yellow sky and a tower of concrete, construction cranes, southside homes, and a strangely dark and imposing Allen-Bradley Clock. One of those homes is the one Robin grew up in.
During his childhood, his family lived five blocks from the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower. His house was on the west side of the street, looking east. It’s the house on the middle-right in Stephanie’s looming tower, the one with the porch. The moonlight was so bright it would shine right into his house and onto the desk in his room. His family, as did many in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, called it the “Polish moon,” a sobriquet in honor of the Polish immigrants of Walker’s Point. What I love is that Robin made it seem like it was only his family that called it that; there was that sense of pride again. As an accompaniment to Stephanie’s painting, Molly captured a similar special pride in her short story:
“We never had to have a clock or thermometer in the house,” Robin mused, “because all we had to do was look out the window. And my school was two blocks away. We’d watch the guys washing the glass of the clock–especially when we were studying. It was so cool, how could you blame us?
Robin had been enjoying the appetizers and had somehow devoured all but a lonely raisin, which he picked up, then placed back on the plate. I understood that the stark white plate was one of the 40-foot, 3-1/2 inch clock faces. “You knew it was a big clock, obviously, but when you saw a man up there? Then you told yourself, ‘That’s a big clock!'” The only photo I have of Robin is this one of him pointing to the raisin man:
We saw Stephanie arriving, but before they greeted each other with friendly memories and hugs, Robin left me with this: “Eventually, I got to work as a painter in the offices and parking lot of Rockwell Automation– and guess what? I was up there on the side of the building on one of those swing stages, just like the guys I’d see from my school window. It’s funny how everything comes full circle, isn’t it?”